“Now, we ain’t got nothing to do with God’s business,” she says, sitting back in her seat. She adjusts herself and straightens her scarf, contenting herself with whatever the day has in store.” — Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns
March 5 is Ida Mae Gladney’s birthday. She would have been 102. Gladney was born in Chickasaw, Mississippi, 1913, as part of a family tradition of sharecropping in that region. More generally, she was part of the great generations (from the 1920s to the 1970s) of black pioneers that escaped the oppressive conditions of the South to move northward in one of the greatest acts of self-emancipation in American history. The textbooks call it the Great Migration. Gladney made her way to Milwaukee and ultimately Chicago in search of a better life, a surer freedom from the daily risk of death that was de rigueur for black men and women in the South. Out of the hundreds of thousands that made their way North and even West, Gladney’s story captures a singular triumph of the human spirit.
For Gladney is one of the richest literary personalities of the Great Migration. In her famous book The Warmth of Other Suns writer Isabel Wilkerson made Gladney the proletariat heroine in a tragic, hopeful drama that embodies the dualities of being black in America and the spiritual fight for solace as vehement racism overtakes life. More than any figure profiled in that elegant book, Gladney had achieved a rare spiritual contentment and hard-earned wisdom that made her life an exceptional human achievement. So, though, Black History Month may have come and gone, Gladney’s birthday reminds us black history is everyday. And how powerful it is.